A smart city in Arizona desert

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Published: November 19, 2017 2:19:48 AM

The proposed community in Arizona would be comparable in size and population to nearby Tempe, which has a population of about 1,60,000 people. The smart city, called ‘Belmont’, will have 80,000 residential units, with more than 3,800 acres for office, commercial and retail space, 3,400 acres of open space and 470 acres for public schools.

Building a smart city in a desert is a novel idea with cutting-edge technology at its core.

Tech billionaire Bill Gates has invested in a huge patch of land west of Phoenix, Arizona, with the intention of building a new smart city. An investment firm run by Gates is hopping on the thriving smart city trend and recently paid $80 million to acquire 25,000 acres of land in Arizona with plans to build a technologically-integrated community from the ground up. Gates sees the city, tentatively named ‘Belmont’, as a chance to build information networking into the bedrock of any future development there. The proposed smart city will provide a “template” for the development of sustainable cities capitalising on cutting-edge infrastructure. The investment comes amid growing interest in smart cities, communities that use technology to keep streets clean by alerting the sanitation department when public garbage bins are full, for example. Communities that allow residents to unlock their office door and turn on their computer before even arriving at work. Places where residents can use their phones to reserve and get directions to a parking space.

As per a report by Navigant Research, smart cities are a global phenomenon. There are 250 projects underway in 178 cities worldwide, with Europe leading the way because of its aggressive climate change policies. The research firm estimates the global market for smart city technologies and services to be worth $40.1 billion in 2017, with growth expected to reach a whopping $97.9 billion by 2026. Barriers to entry are falling as sensors improve and smart technologies grow more efficient, more capable, more interoperable and less expensive. In a smart city, wireless motion and flow sensors, low-cost video cameras, temperature and noise monitors and air quality devices feed data continuously into systems, which use them to control traffic lights, streetlights, pedestrian displays, power distribution and more. Cities use them to monitor traffic, mass transit, pedestrian flows and crime. All these devices link with rugged wide area networks that send data to the Cloud, where powerful analytic engines the data to make cities efficient and safer.

The proposed community in Arizona would be comparable in size and population to nearby Tempe—40 square miles and a population of about 1,60,000 people. Belmont will be composed of 80,000 residential units, with more than 3,800 acres for office, commercial and retail space, 3,400 acres of open space and 470 acres for public schools. Currently, the undeveloped patch of desert, which is 45 minutes west of Phoenix, is without water or electricity. The city’s growth would be driven by the completion of I-11, an interstate highway connecting Phoenix to Las Vegas, Nevada. While the highway is tentatively set to complete construction in 2018, no timetables for Belmont have been publicly announced. Arizona is no stranger to utopian city projects. The iconic Arcosanti, only an hour north of Phoenix, was founded in the 1970s with the intent of merging the built environment with the natural world. Sadly, Arcosanti’s ambitious goal of demonstrating the efficiency of a smartly planned city never quite came to pass. While still a learning space and monument to designer Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti currently only houses between 50 and 150 people at any one time.

Smart cities will require significant investments that go well beyond the initial build. With digital infrastructure evolving so quickly, municipal officials will probably need to update software frequently to improve capabilities. San Diego officials are spending $30 million to make their city smarter. The effort, the most ambitious in the world, involves replacing 14,000 streetlights with LED lights and 3,200 sensors. Those sensors will gather information on everything from vehicular traffic and pedestrian movement to changes in air quality. The data will enable the city to reroute emergency vehicles around congestion, smooth the flow of the daily commute, and point drivers to vacant parking spaces as they become available. Not all smart cities shape up as planned. Some of the planned communities have a history of going awry. One of the prime examples is Songdo in South Korea. Originally built as an interconnected smart city meant to lure international investment, the majority of residents are now South Koreans who have been prized out of Seoul. Despite the underground trash system and personalised language learning programming for residents, Songdo also remains sparsely populated. Only time will tell if the new city from the Microsoft founder will be an inclusive, holistically planned community or just a test ground for Microsoft products.

Cities must learn to master flows of traffic, energy and information to create a smarter city that makes life better for those who are connected and those who aren’t. Either that or they will descend into digital—and perhaps physical—chaos, as independent smart devices create their own ad hoc networks and fight for their own piece of turf. It is too soon to tell how this will all work out. Yet one thing is certain: smart city technology is moving so fast, it has no time to wait for a mock city in the desert. It is happening now.

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